If, in the 20 years spent recording Mahler's 10 symphonies plus his symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and symphonic oratorio Das Klagende Lied, Simon Rattle was at first determined to deliver performances contradicting accepted standards and at the end equally determined to deliver performances conforming to accepted standards, he succeeded admirably.
Rattle's 1984 Das klagende Lied was one of the first of the complete three movement versions, and the first to treat the sprawling early work as if it were a soaring mature work. His 1985 Second featured an opening Funeral March and a concluding "Apocalypse" taken in large part at nearly the same tempo, thereby ignoring a performance tradition of taut Marches and expansive Apocalyses stretching back through Klemperer and Walter. And his 1989 Sixth reversed the order of the inner movements from Scherzo-Andante to Andante-Scherzo, thereby flaunting the traditional order in the work's standard printed editions.
While his 1991 First was only somewhat more impetuous than many and his 1993 Seventh only slightly more reserved than most, Rattle's 1995 Das Lied von der Erde differed from nearly every other recording because he used not the accepted version for tenor and alto but the alternative version for tenor and baritone. Likewise, his 1997 Third was relatively straightforward, but his 1997 Fourth reversed the opening movement's tempos and thus contravened every other recording ever made of the piece.
But Rattle's approach to Mahler changed when he succeeded Claudio Abbado as music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker. With only one exception, Rattle had heretofore led his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a doughty Midlands ensemble dedicated to giving Rattle its best but still a provincial band compared with the super-virtuoso orchestra of the German capital, and his 1999 recording of the complete Tenth and 2002 recording of the Fifth were not only superlatively played, they were well within the established Austro-German performing tradition. Even the Tenth, the least recorded of Mahler's symphonies, received a performance so interpretively conservative it made the work sound like an integral part of the Mahler canon. The only exception to the earlier "only in Birmingham" rule was Rattle's 1993 recording of the Ninth with the Wiener Philharmoniker, and like the later Berlin performances, it, too, was more refined in its playing and more central in its interpretation.
Returning to Birmingham for the "Symphony of a Thousand" Eighth in 2004, Rattle and his players -- plus, of course, his hundreds of singers -- turned in a performance of exceptional excitement and if unexceptional traditionalism. Perhaps the work's enormous scale and gargantuan ambition preclude interpretive freedom. Even Leonard Bernstein and Kent Nagano, two notably freedom-loving Mahler conductors, recorded relatively direct performances of the Eighth. Or perhaps Rattle had mellowed over the course of two decades and felt less need to prove his individuality. But whatever the cause, while Rattle's Eighth, like any great Eighth, is tremendously thrilling, it is also, like any great Eighth, no less interpretively conventional than the industry standard recordings by Solti and Tennstedt. Though definitely not for everyone, Rattle's recordings will surely challenge any seasoned Mahler fan's understanding of the music.